The Hot Seat – Richard Kelly

Today I’m visiting prison. See, in Hollywood some people go to “director jail.” They’re blacklisted over something and cannot get a film made no matter what. I visited the women’s prison last week, taking time out to look into the filmography of Nancy Meyers (someone we undervalue constantly). This week I’m visiting the male wing of the prison. We’re taking a look at Richard Kelly, who is one of the most bizarre figures in the film industry. His first film, a little indie I’ll talk about in a moment, was a quiet hit that every pretentious nerd watched in high school/college and discussed endlessly. My Junior year in high school garnered me no less than a dozen viewings of the film and led me to follow him through his only two other movies.

That’s right, he only made TWO OTHER MOVIES.

Richard Kelly has all but disappeared from the scene over the last eleven years. When I walked out of what is currently his final film I was pissed. Now, over a decade later, I’ve come to find a weird joy in all of his films and look at them through a different lens. He’s a visionary that went uncompromised throughout his entire career, and I desperately wish we’d let the guy go further. Few people have been so audacious, so focused, and so staunch on creating no less than their vision. 

Let’s get down to business.

3. Donnie Darko [2001]: I know, I get that this one is wildly influential for all of you. I know your cool older sibling brought it to your attention in high school or that you saw it in a college dorm room, your mind shattering and that space then filled with thoughts on the nature of time travel (if you saw it on some sort of “enhancement material” then triple that). It’s a fiercely influential film that is dedicated to wallowing in an atmosphere of inevitability. The film posits that we’re predestined to arrive at certain conclusions and that deviation from that path can cause wanton destruction to those around us. It’s a mean little film, a lot of fun and beautiful in ways I wish hadn’t permeated the culture so badly. The popularity of the film led us to a cult following that created a worship of Kelly in a way I haven’t honestly seen in another director. Almost no one even knows he has other films, despite one of them starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Donnie Darko manages to be a strange, special piece of filmmaking despite the culture it created and it’s very wonderful. Look, at the end of the day it’s a film about a time travel paradox that stars Jake/Maggie Gyllenhaal, Seth Rogen, Daveigh Chase, Jena Malone, and Patrick Swayze. Kelly caught most of these people on the rise and one of them on the decline, but he utilized them perfectly and created a beautiful story that I still love to this day. Fear the bunny, peeps, fear the bunny. Oh, and don’t watch the Director’s Cut. Holy hell, it’s really bad.

2. Southland Tales [2006]: Can we PLEASE talk about how stacked this cast is? Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Sean William Scott, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Mandy Moore, Justin Timberlake, Bai Ling, Kevin Smith, and Miranda Freakin’ Richardson. While Richard Kelly was able to garner a good cast for his first film, they were mostly unknown at that point. No one, at all, knew who they were. This film, however, stars The Rock on his rise to fame alongside Stiffler, Daphne Blake, the fat guy that loves Batman, and two popstars. What I really want to talk about, of course, is Justin Timberlake. I generally enjoy the guy, finding each performance to be comedic and layered with the intentions of the director. He’s a blank slate, raised as a popstar and able to do a bazillion takes after practicing concert tour routines 100+ times. Here he has a musical number, one that is possibly the most fascinating thing I’ve seen him do on screen. He’s a broken, damaged war vet and he does this bizarre song and dance thing, it’s wild. Along with that we get The Rock uttering lines like “I’m a pimp, and pimps don’t commit suicide.” How goddamned wild is that!? Kelly’s second film swings for the fences and it’s a home run for me. It’s far from perfect, but it’s a movie that I can’t stop watching. Maybe it’s some form of masochism, maybe it’s just that I really love watching him do something so weird, and maybe it’s just that I love the guy for thinking outside the box. This is only a couple of years before Marvel homogenized blockbuster filmmaking, an era where someone like Kelly could get something like Southland Tales made for only $17m. Oh, and he’s got prequel comics before they were cool. It’s totally baller. 

  1. The Box [2009]: We have to start off by talking about Richard Matheson. The guy is responsible for a lot of episodes of The Twilight Zone, alongside having written some of the most wonderful short fiction imaginable. His novella, I Am Legend, is responsible for three adaptations that I enjoy on different levels (The Omega Man is the best one, and we’ll come to blows if you try to claim the Will Smith film is better). I love the guy, but when you couple him with Kelly I get wild. I didn’t always, hating the film when a friend and I walked out in 2009. The final reveal is something that enraged me as a youth and elates me as an adult, weird and novel and sort of quaint. It’s a film that let’s James Marsden and Cameron Diaz shine, possibly for the last time on each count, and they make the decision to be as weird and borderline unlikeable as possible without dipping into unwatchable. “Button, Button,” by Richard Matheson is one of the best short stories out there, and Richard Kelly’s final film is one that uses it to formulate an atmosphere of dread and inevitably .This is something unappreciated in storytelling. The shock ending, the twist, are far too respected and it’s led to a lot of predictable storytelling. What blows me away is when a film calls its shot, sets everything up, and then knocks it down in spectacular glory. The Box is a film I had to come around on, but turns out Kelly just got better with each installment. It’s truly a flawed masterpiece, and I hope you latch onto this one.

That’s Richard Kelly! Have I lost all readership due to this one? I know Donnie Darko is widely loved, but I think the director only improved from there and his films were misunderstood at the time of their release. I urge you to check them out and take a look at one of the most bizarre filmmakers of my generation, one that constantly fascinates me and takes me by surprise. I urge you to hunt down his three movies (it’s literally three, and if you’re a responsible adult during a pandemic you’ve got time) and give them a watch. He’s worth it, and you didn’t give him a chase beyond Donnie Darko so…do so.

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